Inside An Ambush Killing Zone

Warning, Skip sections in red and italics if your are easily upset.  They contain very graphic and upsetting descriptions of combat.

 The story will still be complete without reading those sections.

28 OCT 1969

I need help sorting out this story.  I am not sure of the dates or the names of many of those involved.  It is a prime example of the easy mission that can suddenly become a life and death nightmare.  It is the story of an ambush seen from inside the kill zone.  I was Delta Company Commander and we had just been put on perimeter security duty at Camp Radcliff, in An Khe. The local sapper battalion was attacking the perimeter several times a week. It was serious duty, but my troops looked on it as party time, sneaking out through the wire at night to go down to the local village.  Keeping everyone alert to security was a real chore. Just in from LZ PAT on pipeline and bridge security, we had been on perimeter duty, with occasional duty as a ready reaction force for several days, when I got the mission to locate the firing positions of a mortar that had been shelling the base camp. We trucked down QL19 highway to just the other side of An Tuc and began climbing up hill 674.  We climbed up the finger nearest the road, but it got really steep towards the top. The view from the top was breathtaking.  We could look down on Radcliff, QL19 and the local villages.   We then proceeded to cross the saddle to Hill 684.  On the back side of Hill 684 we found a mortar pit dug into a lower peak. It was shielded from An Khe by Hill 684 itself, which made it very hard to see or hit from Camp Radcliff.  We noted it's location and carefully misadjusted their aiming stakes before returning to base camp late in the afternoon.  We were attacked along the bunker line again that night.  On our side of the perimeter the bunkers were so far apart, that line of sight observation between bunkers was impossible even in the day time.  The sappers who came into the perimeter probably were probably coming in through our sector.  I had complained about the lack of coverage to battalion the first day we took over the bunker line and they promised to look into it.

29 OCT 1969

The next morning, still exhausted from being on alert all night along the bunker line, we were given the mission of conducting a reconnaissance along another ridge line a little further down QL19 and on the other side of the road.  We trucked to a field about a hundred yards from the ridgeline. The ridge was covered in hundred foot trees with bamboo and vines thickly filling in the under story.  The few small clearings were filled with  waist high elephant grass and saw grass. As we unloaded and got assembled to move out, we took sniper fire from multiple positions along the ridge.  Since we were out in the open field, we were sitting ducks.  Luckily no one was hit seriously and our initial "mad minute" gave us enough time to find what low spots were available for cover. About that time a Duster and a Quad 50 pulled off the road on their way to An Khe to escort a convoy. The track commander came running over and asked if we could use some fire power. I said hell yes, pointed him toward the ridge line and told him to blanket the area. After about five minutes of the most intense demonstration of firepower I had ever witnessed, they came over and asked if I thought that was sufficient. I said that I thought that would do, and thanked them profusely. I remember sending the walking wounded back to An Khe on the Quad 50 deuce and a half. As the duster and quad continued on their way to An Khe. We dug in and set up a perimeter for the night.


30 OCT 1969

Early the next day we moved into the jungle and had to use machetes to get on top of the ridge line.  On top we found a crude trail headed back in the direction of An Khe. As is frequently the case, Delta Company only had one platoon leader who could be trusted to read the map well enough to get us to our destination without having to back track and climb ridges and hills for nothing.  His platoon was therefore given more than their share of point man duty.  It was unfair, but better than having to climb hills unnecessarily.  Since this promised to be an easy route to navigate, I decided to let one of my less experienced platoon leaders take the lead.  As you will soon find out, that was a fatal mistake.

As usual, I traveled with my headquarters group about a third of the way back from the lead element. The lead platoon had just finished crossing a small waist high saw grass clearing between two small hills along the ridge line, when I began to notice indentations in the red clay, where small rocks had been removed.  It made me think of someone collecting stones to put into overhead cover for a bunker.  I was about fifty feet into the clearing. I reached for the radio I carried hidden in my rucksack to call the lead platoon and warn them to be on the lookout for bunkers and a possible ambush. Suddenly the far tree line lit up with muzzle flashes and mortar rounds started exploding all around me. The soldier in front of me hit me in the chest hard, knocking me to the ground. I lay there, stunned, the word AMBUSH !!! exploding into my mind.  The noise was incredible. I grabbed the radio handset and called the lead platoon, but got no response.

Lying there with bullets mowing the saw grass down like a giant lawn mower, I found myself looking directly into the moist, waxy, pink cavity that had held the brains of the soldier  who slammed into me seconds before.  He had been hit by a single bullet in the forehead which blew the top of his skull off spraying his brains all over the place.  His eyes were wide open, but they were like doll's eyes, lifeless.  I knew him well, but did not know his name.

Suddenly a bullet hit the ground inches from my face and sprayed dirt into my eyes stinging like bees.  I blinked furiously to get my vision cleared.  I had every muscle in my body tensed to the point of pain.  I was afraid to lift up and look around, because the bullets were cutting the grass off less than a foot above the ground.  As the initial bursts of gunfire subsided, I could hear the screams of men getting hit as they lay in the open clearing. I realized there must be snipers in the trees picking us off one by one.  I wanted to get up and run to the concealment and safety of the jungle, but standing would get you mowed down like the saw grass and even movement might attract the attention of one of the snipers.  Staying put was also certain death.  I was frozen with fear. I closed my eyes and began to sob as the sounds of battle faded away.  I knew I was going to die. I don't know how long I lay there paralyzed with fear, withdrawn deep inside my own mind. Eventually I opened my eyes again, amazingly detached, having somehow forgotten about my imminent death.  I felt the warmth of the sun on my cheek and  noted the two inch layer of mulched saw grass covering everything. As I took my first deep breath in quite awhile, I could smell the wonderful fragrance of fresh cut grass.  Then suddenly the sounds of battle came rushing back with startling reality and frightening loudness.

 About that time I noticed that a few inches from my face a line of carpenter ants were marching along in a solid column, carrying bits of vegetation, beetle bodies, grasshopper legs, and some glossy pink chunks of fungus to feed their colony.  I was amazed that life was going on as normal as ever for these creatures in the midst of my personal chaos. As I lay there deciding what to do next, I slowly became aware of a large chunk of the ham and eggs luncheon meat I had eaten for breakfast still lodged in the corner of my mouth.  I chewed it and swallowed, puzzled how such a large chunk could have remained in my mouth undetected until now.  While I lay there assessing my situation, I felt safe as long as I did not move.  I still heard the crack of bullets breaking the sound barrier inches above my head, still heard the mortars and grenades exploding, still heard that distinctive crack of the AK-47's, but somehow it didn't seem to connect with my own mortality.  Once again I focused on the chain of ants, carrying their large, moist, waxy, pink...CHUNKS OF BRAIN!!!! OH MY GOD  !  NOooo...ooo...ooo !!!  My whole body contracted in a painful convulsion, as reality sank into my consciousness.  Horrifying total reality...it was not ham and eggs, but a chunk of the dead soldiers brains that I had idly chewed and swallowed!  I have never, ever vomited like that.  It was very painful, knocking the air from my lungs, as my whole body contracted in an effort to expel the entire contents of my stomach.  The solid stream of vomit shot over four feet through the air.  The contraction lasted until I began to see spots dancing in front of my eyes, about to lose consciousness from lack of oxygen. With my last once of strength, I forced myself to inhale, taking only a small gasp, before the second convulsion began.  So it continued forever, it seemed.  Eventually I had no more fluids to expel, so I just dry heaved, struggling to get enough air to remain conscious.  I don't know how long it continued.  Eventually I found that if I inhaled very shallow and slowly, I could prevent the heaves from coming back.  As I knelt there, the total fear that had consumed me before, was now replaced with a soul consuming anger.  The gunfire had settled down to sporadic outbursts and the occasional single sniper shots.  I suddenly realized that I had gotten up on my hands and knees during the vomiting.

I quickly looked around me and saw a soldier get hit by a sniper as he lay flat on the ground.  It was obvious that we were not safe out in the open with those snipers in the trees.  Dropping back down, I took the handset to call my platoon leaders, but a bullet had torn through the backpack and destroyed my radio.  My headquarters element was about twenty feet to my rear, so I low crawled over to them and took the handset of my RTO's radio.  He said he had some gun ships on the line. I first tuned to the company frequency and attempted to contact the lead platoon, but got no reply.  Next I got on the air with the FAC and told them I desperately needed sir support, but still did not know where my front lines were and would get back to him.  I called the platoon leaders of the second and third platoons and told them we had to move out across the clearing, link up with the lead platoon and cover their withdrawal.  Then I got up and  holding the handset and ordered everyone to move out.  I looked around and everyone was staring at me like I was mad.  About that time, one of the snipers shot the wires off the radio, right where they entered the handset I was about to talk through. I threw the severed handset to my RTO and told him to splice the wires back together before we all died here.  Then with an insane anger, I took out my 45 cal. pistol and starting shouting obscenities at the snipers, as I traded shots with them, all the while yelling at everyone that we had to get to the far tree line before they  picked us all off one at a time.  The dirt was kicking up around me, but for some unknown reason those snipers did not seem to be able to hit me.  My insanity, which I guess everyone mistook for bravery, finally gave them the courage to get up, return fire, and run for the far side of the clearing.  With a fighting force under my command again, we proceeded to move up to the trapped lead platoon.  I set up headquarters just inside the far tree line as my medic, took off low crawling towards the front of the column to tend the wounded.  My mortar section caught up to me about this time. I told them to call the second platoon, who finally had the lead element in site and fire everything they had in support of the withdrawal.

About then the rear platoon came up to find out what was going on. I told them to take his platoon around the right flank to provide the lead elements some covering fire as they withdrew. In the meantime my RTO had repaired the radio. The mortar section leader reported that they had lost radio contact with the second platoon and had no more ammo left. I  told him to take his RTO and go forward to adjust the gun ships and artillery on the enemy in preparation for the withdrawal. He looked me in the eye and I could tell he was really scared but he moved out anyhow.  I never heard from him again. Doc came crawling up on his hands and knees dragging a wounded man, who was holding on with his hands locked around Doc's neck.  Doc had been grazed on the shoulder, a one inch deep groove, just missing his collar bone. I had the remainder of the mortar squad take the wounded man back across the clearing and set up a perimeter to receive us as we pulled back.  Things were really hectic. People were dying every second.  The lead platoons radio was out. The second platoons radio was out. The mortar section radio was out. My personal radio was dead.  All I had was the third platoon radio, which was moving around to the right flank and one repaired radio in my headquarters section.  My RTO was having to switch back and forth continuously from the battalion frequency, to the FAC and gun ship frequency, to the artillery frequency, and  back to the company frequency.  Third platoon called to say they were almost in position. Doc was patched up and started to go forward again, when I grabbed him and told him to get someone up there on a radio.  As he disappeared, I marveled at the courage it must have taken to go up there without even a weapon.  Other soldiers began to move past my position carrying wounded.  Doc showed up again, low crawling and dragging another wounded man.  This time he had taken a round through his buttocks. Finally someone came on the radio to say that they had gotten everyone and were beginning to pull back.  I told them to pop smoke and haul ass.  Then I called third platoon and asked them if they could see the smoke.  They said they had heard it, so I told them to give the enemy a mad minute, then pop two smokes and meet us back on the other side of the clearing.  As soon as I heard the mad minute stop, I had my RTO tell the gun ships to destroy the entire ridge line from the smoke back towards An Khe, then clear the gun target line from Camp Radcliff, so I could get some artillery to cover our retreat.  There were suddenly lots of very scared troops moving very fast past us. I can still see their eyes, wide, white, darting.

When the lead element of the rescuing platoon got to my position, I asked if they had gotten everyone.  They said all but two, both KIA.  I asked if we could get to the bodies and he said flatly, NO.   He said one man had been blown to pieces. Two people had seen him as a mortar round made a direct hit and when the smoke cleared, he simply wasn't there anymore.  The other man had been hit twice in the chest and as he fell, another round blew  his face off.  They were sure that both were dead, so we pulled back into our perimeter.  The last man to return was a machine gunner we called "South Philly".  He was young black man from the streets of Philadelphia , who was shot to pieces.  He had at least five wounds that I could see.  He and another man with a sucking chest wound needed immediate evacuation. They told me that he just stood up and traded round for round with the NVA machine guns, until they were all silenced. As we began to move back,  I passed the soldier who had fallen into me during the initial assault and I tried to get someone to carry his body back into the tree line. Two people tried, but as soon as they saw the top of his head missing, they starting throwing up, just as I had done earlier.  I bent down to pick him up myself, but after several tries, my 110 pound frame just wasn't up to the task of lifting a 175 pound corpse.  About that time, a soldier came up to me and said the would carry him.  He said he was a cop from Seattle, Washington and had handled bodies before.  He bent down and lifted the corps onto his shoulders in a fireman's carry, turned and was off at a trot.

When I reached the perimeter, Doc said we needed to get two people out now or they would be dead before we reached the road.  I called battalion and requested immediate Dust-Off, asking for the jungle penetrator, explaining that the two wounded would not make it to the road.  I also asked for a standby Dustoff for the other four wounded, when we reached the road.  I checked in with the FAC and he said they had expended all their ordinance, so I thanked him and said I was turning on the artillery, so they needed to keep clear of the gun target line.  I contacted the artillery and asked for a road runner mission all along the ridge line from my position back 500 yards towards An Khe.  We started moving back towards the field beside the road and had descended the ridge line to the valley floor, when the Dustoff called. We popped smoke and they hovered overhead lowering the jungle penetrator.  They pulled the machine gunner, out.  The second man was not conscious, so they sent a man down with the penetrator to assist in hauling him up. We got them hooked onto the penetrator and they moving up through the trees.  At about thirty feet, AK47 fire started from the ridge line. I saw the wounded man and the rescue man both take hits.  My men started shooting like it was the end of the world.  The penetrator finally cleared the canopy and the chopper moved away, with both men dangling below on the cable, looking unconscious.  I called for some artillery on the ridge line and began walking it down the hill as we began moving towards the road again.  Twice I had it so close that shrapnel was whizzing over our heads, but it definitely made the NVA get their heads down and stopped the AK-47 fire.  When we reached the edge of the jungle, I called for the second Medevac.  None were available, so one of the battalion C&C birds came in to pick up the wounded.  One of our injured had died in route and there was the one who died in front of me.  We loaded the four walking wounded and began to loading the ponchos with the dead, when the officer from battalion tried to tell us he would not take our dead.  I don't remember what I said, but I do remember drawing my 45 with full intentions of shooting him dead.  He backed off with his hands in the air and we loaded the bodies.  About that time a ready reaction unit from Radcliff linked up with us.  I briefed them about the two missing KIA's and described the terrain.  They moved out to attempt to find the bodies and engage anyone left.  We moved across the field to the road and were convoyed back to base camp a short time later.



KIA
Thomas Clark-Pointman
James Herin-Assistant Machine Gunner
Perry Hopkins-Rifleman
Wesley Vermeesch-Rifleman

WIA

Carl Locklear
Jim Norris
Billy Whitlow
Steve Marsolik
Doc Clayton
Robert Olivier
Little Jack

Verification of the KIA and naming of the WIA has been confirmed by Gary McNeely was an 11B, who was selected by CPT Caldwell to be Company Clerk from AUG 1969 'till his DEROS in JAN 1970.

I have only four pages of this issue, but I think the article on page 2 refers to these actions.

Click on picture to read.

Postscript:

I want to express my total admiration for the courage of my Medic, who went forward to tend to the wounded knowing full well that I had already sent two other groups forward only to lose contact with them.  Both of the times he was wounded, he could have stayed put and waited for other men to bring the wounded to him. I asked for him to receive a silver star, but wish I had put him for the Medal of Honor.  I do not know what he finally got, but he will always have my undying respect.  I only hope his people back in the world have some idea what a truly brave hero he was.

I also want to comment on the incredible courage of the machine gunner who kept hosing down the enemy lines, even as he was being shot up himself.  His withering fire allowed our troops to pull back.  We may all owe our very lives to this heroic individual.

Lastly, I want to state, that the entire unit performed extremely well, in the face of such a deadly disaster.  The NVA setup and pulled off a classic ambush and we were the unfortunate victims for a change.  We really did not make any mistakes, we just ran out of luck.  How we acted after that is the stuff of legends.  I still cannot believe 19, 20, 21 year old civilians, mere kids, many not old enough to vote or drink beer yet, after only a year or less of training, could perform such larger than life deeds.  I think every last one of them deserve medals.  I put up this website so those of you lucky enough not to have had these kinds of life altering experiences, might begin to understand the horrors of war and appreciate the daily courage and bravery of those who served in Vietnam and all the other wars fought for this country and by others for their country..

Finally, I apologize to the many men whose stories I forgot to tell.  I also apologize for any factual errors included herein.  This is the story as best as I can remember it after all this time.  Please correct me, add more details, give me names...I want to find out as much about these events as I can.  Through the fog of war and decades of time, much of this story has escaped me.  I very, very much regret that I do not remember more names, but after you make friends with a couple of FNG's only to have to load their body bags on a chopper a few weeks later, you start deliberately avoiding names.  You use rank, position, nicknames...any thing to keep from getting too close.  That is what a leader finds himself doing to keep from letting the terrible truth get to him. Looking people in the eye and telling them to do things to keep the unit from being wiped out, all the while knowing that they will probably not come back alive, is haunting memory that many small unit commanders struggle with for the rest of their lives.  I had terrible nightmares about those decisions for decades after I returned.  For the first six or eight years I would often wake up in the middle of the night, vomiting, terrified, reliving the horror of that day all over again.  I still find the color pink and any moist waxy substances very disturbing.  I regret so very deeply, that I do not even know his name.  The bad part is that he was only one of many, whose faces still haunt me to this very day.

Last but most importantly I want to commend those men in the lead platoon, who withstood the brunt of the ambush. Their courage is beyond words. I was nearly a hundred meters back from their position and I was scared to death. The courage it took for them to collect their wounded and withdraw under fire is totally amazing. I wonder if I would have had such courage. I think often of the brave men who died in that ambush. I will never forget them. I wish I had known all the details of their struggles. Many of them should have gotten medals for heroism, but probably didn't. That happened a lot. Heroes often go unsung in the heat of combat.

PPS: and to my family and friends who wondered why I was so quiet and withdrawn, when I returned home........

But I was one of the lucky ones. I got back whole and after more than thirty years, I am still alive and sane.  I have even found happiness, in a marriage which fairy tales are written about. 

Thank you, Tibby.




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